Investing in Services for Online Students

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By Lurene Kelley

Walk around campus and you’ll see students wearing backpacks, laughing with friends and ducking into Alfonso for a bite. That’s our student body, we tell ourselves. But what you may not see are those students registered for one of the 180+  seats in online courses this semester. This number doesn’t even include the CAPS program, which offers numerous courses online.

Most CBU students taking classes online are simultaneously taking courses on campus. They are the same ones you’ve seen with the backpacks, joking with friends and munching on a cookie as they leave Alfonso. But there are others you won’t see. Some started out on campus, have since moved and are finishing degrees from another city or state. Others live in the Mid-South, but work full time, have family and are taking what they can online.

So even before CBU launches a fully-developed program of online majors, we already know something about what it means to have students experiencing limited or no interaction with the physical CBU campus. Even if they don’t know how to get to the Canale Arena, though, these students are every bit CBU Buccaneers. We may not see them in the physical classroom or in our offices, but they are our students to teach, mentor, tutor, retain and graduate.

The charge for the Online Learning & Educational Technology (OLET) team and for every office on campus is to provide the same level of service to online students as is provided to on campus students. This straightforward formula, however, isn’t as simple as it seems.

Investing in Online Students 

The National Center for Education Statistics finds that on average, student services and related costs in the 2015-16 school year accounted for 20% of higher education spending at state schools. The expenditure is even more at private schools, where it can account for 30% of the budget.

But this is typically not the case for spending on online students. Robert Ubell, the Vice Dean Emeritus of online learning at NYU’s Tandon School of Engineering, found that student services for online students is usually an afterthought.

Ubell says this disparity is particularly troubling, because online students desperately need quality assistance. A 2017 US News survey of online students determined that 84% work while going to school with about 60% working full time. Contrast that with on campus students: an average of 70% work and 25% of those students are working full time.

Given the additional load most online students are already balancing, they may not be able to handle the extra stress of financial aid bureaucracy, ignored emails or calls bounced from department to department. Especially, if they can’t just walk into an office and experience a friendly face.

Student Services for CBU Online 

This is why the OLET team is working to gather or prepare as many services as possible for online students, before we ever recruit our first fully online student. For CBU, it is both an ethical imperative and smart management to treat online students the same as on campus students. If online students are left to fend for themselves, they can leave for another online program or, worse, feel that their time with CBU has been frustrating and isolating.

Some CBU student services are simpler to provide virtually than others. For example, Plough Library offers an always growing database of online publications that students off and on campus access in an almost identical manner. Library staff is available five days a week until 11pm to offer assistance via phone and email. Canvas Help is provided 24 hours a day, 7 days a week by phone, email or even chat. And our Career Services office is already accustomed to giving resume and coaching advice by phone or email.

Of course, the most important connection online students have with CBU is you, the faculty. Whether as their classroom instructor or academic advisor, online students who never or rarely set foot on campus can feel as if they are a valued member of the CBU community because of you. Just as it happens for students on campus, the CBU experience often comes down to the professor/student relationship.

Some services, though, are more difficult to translate to online than others. With just one counselor at CBU and concerns about HIPPA rules, will CBU ever be able to provide counseling services? What about Campus Ministry, CBU 101, Career Fairs? How will those experiences be made available to fully online students? Those are all areas that must be reimagined for a virtual environment.

The Webex video conferencing feature has recently been integrated into Canvas, and we are collaborating with Career Services and Academic Services to determine what it will look like to access tutoring or career consultations via virtual meeting spaces. This conversion to online is about more than just turning on a web cam, however, so we are working together to figure out how these critical needs will be met.

Questions remain, but unlike most universities that have launched online learning programs– we are focused on finding these solutions while we’re still building a full array of online majors. For CBU, how we serve our online students is as important as recruiting and teaching them.

What You Can Do

While the bulk of preparing services for online majors is the responsibility of OLET and other offices dedicated to serving students, there are a few things that faculty can do as you advise and teach students:

  • When advising a student who is working full-time and only taking classes online, suggest they take fewer classes, not more. Yes, we want students to get their degrees, but succeeding in an online course is time consuming and requires students to stay on track or else quickly fall behind. At NYU, advisors have found that online students who also work full time should try to limit their load to two courses a semester.
  • When you set a deadline for an assignment, such as midnight Sunday, remember that even for on campus students – it’s difficult to get assistance on the weekend. If you assign a Sunday evening deadline, remind students that at CBU, there is a librarian on call until 11pm Sunday and Canvas tech support is available 24 hours, 7 days a week by calling (901) 318-3024 or by using the Chat feature inside Canvas. You may also want to check your email more frequently the evening of the deadline to see if students are requesting help.
  • Use the Webex feature in Canvas to meet virtually with online students. CBU has an enterprise license with Webex, meaning that every person with a CBU account can host a WebEx meeting. The OLET team is developing training for this service, but in the interim, feel free to dig in. Just go to and log in with your CBU username and password. You can set up individual and group meetings, breakout sessions, webinars and events.
  • If your online students need more assistance than you can give or if you are concerned about their progress – send them to me! I will do everything I can to help them create a plan or find needed resources.

Lurene Kelley, Online Student Success Specialist

(901) 321-4456


(2018) Expenditures: How much do colleges and universities spend on students? Retrieved September 12, 2019 from:

Friedman, J. (April 4, 2017). U.S. News Data: The Average Online Bachelor’s Student. U.S News & World Report. Retrieved September 12, 2019 from:

Smith, D. F. (May 22, 2014). Who is the Average Online College Student? EdTech. Retreived September 12, 2019 from:

Ubell, R. (July 17, 2018). Does Online Education Help Low-income Students Succeed? EdSurge. Retrieved September 12, 2019 from:

Westra, K. (October 29, 2018). Online Student Services: What, Where, Who, When, How, and Most Importantly, Why. EDUCAUSE Review. Retrieved September 12, 2019 from:

Lurene Kelley is an Online Student Success Specialist.

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